NASA's Jim Hansen has gained a lot of attention for asserting that the Bush administration is suppressing his ideas on climate change. Most recently in the February 8 New York Times, Hansen accused his employer of destroying our democracy by censoring climate science, saying, "the foundation of democracy...is an honestly informed public."
But wait. Hansen has himself advocated the use of exaggeration and propaganda as political tools in the debate over global warming. In the March 2004 issue of Scientific American, Hansen wrote, "Emphasis on extreme scenarios may have been appropriate at one time, when the public and decision-makers were relatively unaware of the global warming issue....Now, however, the need is for demonstrably objective climate forcing scenarios..."
In other words, Hansen thought the public should be subjected to nightmare scenarios regardless of the scientific likelihood of catastrophe, simply in order to gain people's attention. And further, that the lurid pictures that have been painted aren't objective after all.
So now he says the time has come to tell the truth, and he is being censored.
Why should we believe him now? What evidence can he give us that his opinions and statements about climate change are suddenly true, when he admits to having misrepresented the facts in the past? Was the public being "honestly informed" then?
Hansen is far from alone in exaggerating climate change for his own political agenda. In 1989, at the same time Hansen was "emphasizing extreme scenarios," Dr. Stephen Schneider, now at Stanford University, opined in Discover magazine that "we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have." Hardly a recipe for encouraging an "honestly informed" public.
The irony is that, in recent years, Hansen's positions on global warming have come increasingly in line with those of the administration he claims is censoring him. In a 2003 article in Natural Science, he laid bare the faulty reasoning behind the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, which have become famous for predicting massive climate change over the course of the next half century.
He wrote that "we predict additional warming in the next 50 years of 3/4°C +/- 1/4°C, a warming rate of 0.15°C +/- 0.05°C per decade." This at the absolute low end of projections made by the IPCC and is precisely the value that has been argued by global warming "skeptics" ("moderates" would be a more accurate term) like myself, for over a decade now.
Hansen essentially argued that the extreme IPCC scenarios are exaggerations without firm grounding in reality, and that we are in all likelihood on an emissions pathway that lies near the low end of the IPCC projections. He was spot on about that.
But obviously, this conclusion doesn't sit well with the throngs of scientists and environmental organizations that have made it their business to scare the bejesus out of us in an effort to advance their own agendas and livelihoods. And, soon after his 2003 paper was published, very little was heard from Mr. Hansen.
But, as soon as he says anything alarmist, his face time returns. And if, while banging the tocsin, the administration is a bit skeptical, he portrays himself as a martyr. So, while Hansen is certainly free to continue to draw attention to himself and to his personal opinions about climate change and how they are being suppressed, we can draw attention to another salient point.
That is, it doesn't seem entirely unreasonable to think that some folks, based upon Hansen's own words, may want to try to make sure that the public is truly being "honestly informed."